Last week’s landslide election of Tsai Ing-wen to Taiwan’s presidency represents the strongest repudiation of China’s authoritarian claim to the island since Lee Teng-hui became Taiwan’s first democratically-elected president in 1996. This highly provocative election result is now making Washington as uncomfortable as Beijing, forcing tough choices on both sides of the Pacific.
For its part, the Chinese Communist Party must choose between crushing what party hawks will surely see as an insurrection or simply going about the business of cross-strait business. If Beijing takes a harder line, the White House must, in turn, decide whether it will recommit American forces to a defense of Taiwan—as Bill Clinton did in 1996—or simply let Taiwan be sucked into Beijing’s orbit and go about the business of America-China business.
Unfortunately, the odds of Beijing taking a hard line and forcing America’s Taiwan hand are high. As U.S. Naval War College Professor Toshi Yoshihara warns: China considers Taiwan to be the last piece of territory lost during its Century of Humiliation, and Beijing has stated repeatedly that this ‘renegade province’ is something the Chinese are prepared to fight over.
It’s not just nationalist pride driving Beijing’s hard line. Says Chinese Major Generals Peng Guangquian and Yao Youzhi: “If Taiwan should be alienated from the mainland, China will forever be locked to the west side of the first chain of islands in the West Pacific.” In that case, “the essential strategic space for China’s rejuvenation will be lost.”
Ideologically, Taiwan’s democracy also deeply frightens CCP authoritarians precisely because it offers proof positive that one of Beijing’s most oft-repeated lines is a big, fat lie: That because of their culture and character, the Chinese people need a strong authoritarian government for their economy to prosper and their Confucian society to properly function. In fact, one of Beijing’s first fearful acts was to ‘disappear’ Taiwan’s new president from China’s internet and social network immediately after the election.
For its part, Washington must decide whether it is prepared to fight for the defense of Taiwan in a battle where it seemingly has far less at stake. In fact, U.S. presidents over the decades have given Beijing considerable reason to believe America may ultimately be willing to surrender Taiwan on some altar of political accommodation or economic pragmatism.
For example, President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger treated Taiwan as a sacrificial pawn to woo China and thereby offset the power of the Soviet Union. To this end, Nixon and Kissinger paved the way for Taiwan’s removal from the United Nations and its replacement by the People’s Republic of China in 1971.
Fast forward to the 2000s and George W. Bush. After pledging to do “whatever it takes” to protect Taiwan, he went on to publicly rebuke Taiwan’s president in 2003. President Barack Obama has followed in Bush’s footsteps with a similarly weak endorsement of Taiwan—backed up by a refusal to sell advanced weapons systems to the island.
Washington’s vacillations and “restraint” are no mystery: The U.S. economy is heavily dependent on trade with China—and many of Washington’s elected officials are just as heavily dependent on massive campaign contributions from American multinational corporations that have a strong vested interest in the growing China trade.
To experts like Professor Yoshihara, however, such American restraint spells increasing danger. He fears these signals of American indecision may one day embolden a rapidly militarizing China to make its final invasion push—a possibility that dramatically increased in probability with last week’s election.
So what should America do? That’s a good question not just for the White House and Congress but also for each of the 2016 presidential candidates.
In thinking about the best answer, it should be noted that it’s not just that the United States has significant moral and ideological stakes in Taiwan’s survival as a thriving democracy committed to free and peaceful trade. There is also this cold geostrategic reality described by Heritage Foundation scholar Dean Cheng:
“Taiwan is perhaps the single most developed piece of the First Island Chain once you leave Japan and Okinawa. So to walk away from Taiwan would, in a sense, be to open the gates for China's navy to be able to access the central Pacific with very little in the way of other obstacles.”
To this, Yoshihara adds: “If China were to ever take Taiwan either peacefully or by force, China gets to cut that First Island Chain in half, essentially cutting in half the U.S. forward posture in the Asia-Pacific region. This would be unprecedented in the history of U.S. military posture in the Asia-Pacific since the end of World War II.
While it’s now Beijing’s move, how Washington responds to any hard line will have an enormous impact on peace and stability in the region. With that, let the presidential debate begin!
Peter Navarro is a professor at the University of California-Irvine. He is the author of Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books) and director of the companion Crouching Tiger documentary film series. For more information and to access film interview clips, visit www.crouchingtiger.net. Peter’s talk on BookTV at the Center for a New American Security will air this Sunday, January 24, on CSPAN2 at 12:00 EST
Image: Flickr/Naval Surface Warriors.